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Monday, July 9, 2012

The B-52s @ BMO Harris Pavilion, Summerfest

July 8, 2012

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In much the same way that their post-punk/new wave contemporaries Devo will always be "that 'Whip It' band," no matter how much fans and critics extoll their many virtues, The B-52's—sorry, that should be "The B-52s," since they dropped the apostrophe in 2008—are, in the eyes of many, the kooky people behind "Love Shack," "Rock Lobster" and little else. And that's a shame, since the Athens, Ga., group's fusion of angular punk, sunny '60s pop, drag-queen kitsch and, eventually, eclectic world music and electronica, has produced some of the most original and distinctive pop ever put on record. There's simply no mistaking one of their songs for anyone else's. It's easy to find a band with a unique voice, but between Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson alone, The B-52s have at least three.

Like Devo, The B-52s stopped releasing studio albums in the early '90s, only to jump back into the fray well over a decade later, with 2008's Funplex. While most critics agreed that the disc didn't quite match their classics, they also agreed that it was good to have the band back regardless, and a similar vibe pervaded Sunday night's show. There was ultimately little chance of them being as electric and off-the-wall as their first incarnation, but all things considered, they were remarkably sharp and lively as they ran through a set list that read like the track-listing for a nearly ideal greatest hits compilation (on the off chance you're looking for an ideal B-52s best-of, 2002's Nude on the Moon: The B-52's Anthology is better than 1998's Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation). Almost every diverse era of their long career got its due, from rough-hewn early cuts like "Planet Claire" and "Party Out of Bounds," through to the globe-trotting pop of "Mesopotamia" or "Roam," and on to the electronic inflections of "Funplex" and "Love in the Year 3000." And of course they played their biggest hits. "Love Shack" capped off the main set, while "Rock Lobster" closed out the encore.

It's always a genuine pleasure to see a band as legendary as The B-52s, but it's doubly so when they sound as engaging and present as they did here. The only drawback was that they ended up playing the new BMO Harris Pavilion, where, for a fee, you can sit in the bleachers while the riff-raff stands a ways back, where the sound is a bit muddled. The whole set-up reeks of greed, but it's not even the money-grubbing that's so wrong about it; it's the principle. There's always been an open, egalitarian feel to the Summerfest ground stages, and that's completely spoiled by allowing people to pay for preferential treatment. It's a dumb development for the Big Gig, but thankfully not dumb enough to ruin Sunday's show, not by a long shot. Of course, that says less about the venue than it does about the band.
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